It creeps and leaps and slides and glides, and this December it arrives on Blu-ray from Criterion – beware The Blob, the 1958 juvenile delinquent science fiction horror movie which made a star of “Steven” McQueen, then 27 playing 18, and, as the trailer would have it, “a cast of exciting young people.”
It is the summer of 1957, and Steve Andrews (McQueen) and his girlfriend Jane Martin (The Toolbox Murders‘ Aneta Corsaut) see a shooting star crash to earth through the trees; driving to the spot to see if they can find it, instead they encounter an old man (Olin Howland in his final role) running through the night, his arm encased in a gelatinous mass.
Bundling the semi-conscious man into the car they take him to Doctor Hallen (When Worlds Collide‘s Stephen Chase) who is alarmed by his condition: “It’s assimilating his flesh at a frightening speed… I may have to get ahead of it and amputate… I don’t know what it is or where it came from.”
What it is, though it is never referred to by that name, is the blob, a primitive alien life form which crawled from the fallen meteor when it cracked open after impact and is drawn to organic material which it absorbs, leaving no remains as evidence of what it has done and growing in size and hunger.
Impervious to conventional weapon, only Steve and Jane are witness to what the blob is doing to their small town, but with the police refusing to believe a couple of rowdy teenagers it is up to them and their friends Tony, Mooch and Al (Robert Fields, James Bonnet and Tony Franke) to raise the alarm and save the town and themselves, if not the world.
Directed by Irvin Yeaworth from a script written by Kay Linaker and Theodore Simonson from a story by Irving H Millgate and filmed for only $110,000, equivalent to just under a million today, The Blob makes up for what it lacks in narrative drive with an abundance of colour and enthusiasm rather than finesse in its acting.
The first film produced by former distributor Jack H Harris, he explains in his commentary that he was convinced it would be a guaranteed hit filling a niche in the market, inspired by Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (1951) to make a serious science fiction horror aimed at the burgeoning teen market, yet it is the juvenile aspects of the film which now date it.
Hot-rod hi-jinks and arguments with the indifferent police little more than time wasting, they are at least cheap to shoot, and in his separate commentary Harris openly admits issues with the pacing and cutting of the film were the result of concerns they wouldn’t have enough film stock, one particular scene shot as a continuous wide take with McQueen facing away from the camera with no budget available for coverage of reverse angle inserts, while at other times the day-for-night shooting is obvious.
Despite this, McQueen and Corsaut are both good considering the underwhelming script and the film was hugely successful with McQueen’s stardom in the sixties and seventies giving it an extended shelf-life, with sequel Beware! The Blob released in 1972 and a remake in 1988, as well as the films which it influenced or inspired, among them The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill segment of Creepshow (1982), Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) and Slither (2006).
While The Blob itself has aspects of both The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957), released as The Creeping Unknown and Enemy from Space in the United States, in that it features a hostile hungry organism which takes over the bodies of its hosts which is mediated to Earth by meteor, but the plot is a simple monster scenario lacking the intellectual sophistication or complex characters.
What it does have is the blob itself, created through a variety of effects and persuaded to ooze over buildings and through cracks by clever camerawork, most famously invading a cinema during a late-night screening, “the first film to put horror into the seats of the theatre” in the words of film historian Bruce Eder in the commentary he shares with Harris, offering trivia and context.
The commentary from Yeaworth and actor Fields the more lively of the two, there are many recollections of Steve McQueen, both from the shoot of The Blob and through the later friendships which continued to his death in 1980 aged only fifty, his final days apparently spent in a room in which he had a framed poster of the film which gave him his first starring role.